BENTON - Benton High School has become accustomed to having athletes play and succeed at the next level. While not everyone moves on to reach “Cliff Lee” status, the ones that play at the NCAA level usually make the most of it.
As for the 2013 Benton Panther basketball team, the “next level” will be chalked full of talent and former Panthers; one being 6-foot, 9-inch big man Graham Gardner who signed to play with College of the Ozarks in Branson, Mo., on Tuesday.
“This is bitter sweet,” Benton Head Coach Chris Nail said. “We are proud that he is going to college and going to play basketball and getting it paid for. It’s bitter because not only is he a good player and kid, he was so much fun to coach and just a good teammate. We are just excited for him and the opportunities he is going to have.”
Gardner helped lead the Panthers to an astonishing 27-3 record in 2013 during his third year as the starting center. The Panthers also made a deep run into the state playoffs before falling to Jonesboro in the semifinals of the 6A State Tournament.
As for trying to replace a big kid such as Gardner, Nail and the rest of the Benton Panthers could have a tough time doing just that.
“You really don’t replace a kid like [Gardner],” Nail said. “I thought his greatest strength this year was that he was our best passer on the team this year. That there will be very difficult to replace.”
While the 2012-13 school year is not over just yet, Gardner is already chomping at the bit to become a part of his new college basketball family.
“I am just really excited to go and play for the College of the Ozarks,” Gardner said. “I have learned a lot form Coach Nail here at Benton and he got me pretty prepared to take it to the next level.”
Bobcats coach Steve Shepherd is going into his 12th year as the lead man for the Ozarks and has already won a national title, made three final fours, taken a Midlands Collegiate Athletic Conference title and two conference tournament titles while at the school. So adding Gardner as a big inside man could be just the key to taking it all once again.
“We look for two things: character and talent and [Gardner] has both,” Shepherd said. “The fact that he is that tall is a plus. It is hard to find [6-9] guys that are productive at our level. I think he can be a force. He is a hard worker and kid that wants to get better.”
Shepherd added that the College of the Ozarks is a working school where the students actually hold jobs on campus and that a lot of the students and athletes that come up there do not want to work and stray away.
“I think [Gardner] wants to work and will be good at it,” Shepard said.
Gardner averaged 9.1 points per game, five rebounds and 1.5 blocks in 2013.